A year ago you would have got long odds on 14-time Major champion Tiger Woods playing competitive golf again, let alone winning, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
When Tiger Woods grimaced after hitting a poor shot out of the thick rough at Le National Golf Course in Paris, the whole world flinched. A week earlier, across the Atlantic in Atlanta, he had produced the comeback sports story of 2018. Now, as a member of the United States Ryder Cup team that was being schooled by Europe, and going winless in four matches played over three days, Woods was suddenly mortal again. The world watched, holding its collective breath and hoping the great American’s grimaces were related to his shot-making and not something more, well, painful.
Pain is something Woods has experienced over the years; injuries being a constant companion of a man who has won 14 Majors and 80 PGA Tour events. When they write golf’s complete history, the man christened Eldrick, but who we all know as ‘Tiger’, will be right there as one of the greats. If not the G.O.A.T.
However, it probably took his first win in five years to drive home the point of just how good Woods was, and still is. Sure, it was a constricted 32-man field competing at the season-ending Tour Championship in Atlanta. He only had 31 golfers to beat, unlike an ‘ordinary’ Tour event where there are 143 others lurking in the field, with the majority teeing up with a chance of winning if it’s their week.
Yet, it was the significance of Woods’ win, at the age of 42, at a time when golf is seeing twenty- and early-thirty-somethings dominating the game.
Top 10-ranked players Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas hadn’t turned four when Woods announced himself by winning his first Major, by 12 shots, at the 1997 Masters. Jon Rahm was two. PGA Tour Player of the Year Brooks Koepka and four-time Major champion Rory McIlroy were just seven – all of them unaware of the magnitude of the arrival of Tiger Woods.
And, once they had all finished their schooling, left the parental nests and forged a career of their own on the professional circuit, they arrived at the top table at a time when Woods was on his way down. All these players were still in their teens when news came that Tiger had crashed his vehicle into a fire hydrant at 2:25am on the morning of 24 November 2009, as he tried to flee his then wife, Elin, after she discovered phone messages relating to his infidelity.
Those who have diced it out at men’s golf’s big ones for the past decade – Woods’ last Major victory came at the 2008 US Open – had never come up against him at his best. It would be like Anthony Joshua taking a look at Mike Tyson’s highlights reel and saying, ‘Sure, he was a great heavyweight champion, but I have the size, the reach and the power to take him out.’ Yes he might, but Tyson is now 52 … would he have been able to beat an Iron Mike in his prime? One doubts it, but that’s what makes sports debates great.
Tiger Woods turns 43 in December, a 14-time Major champion who should be putting up his feet and battered body at his Jupiter Island mansion in Florida and spending the rest of his forties with his two children. Leave the golf to the youngsters, none of whom is going to come close to his tally of Majors and PGA Tour wins. Let them believe they could have taken down a prime Tiger. In their dreams maybe.
It was five years between Woods’ 79th and 80th PGA Tour victories, 1 879 days to be exact, from capturing the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to seeing off Billy Horschel by two strokes at the Tour Championship in Atlanta. Comeback sports story of the year? No question. What comes close? Possibly Serena Williams recovering from nearly dying after complications giving birth to her first daughter to reach the 2018 Wimbledon final.
‘It’s been unbelievable, to get to this level again, I didn’t know if it would happen and, lo and behold, here we are,’ Woods said after picking up the Tour Championship. ‘We’re through an unknown and that was the hardest part – I didn’t know if I’d be able to do this again, or to what level or what degree, and here we are with 80 wins.
‘I’m just blessed, I’m lucky. I’m lucky it worked out for me. My back was in a pretty bad spot there,’ Woods said, adding that as part of his recovery process he had to work around his back injury.
‘To figure out a golf swing and a game built on a fixed point in my back, it’s been kinda interesting. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been very lucky to have a great team around me and they’ve worked so hard to give me a chance; the support I’ve had from them means the world to me.
‘I think my kids understand what Dad does now. I hadn’t won any tournaments that they can remember, so I think this will be a bit different for them. A lot of times they equated golf to pain because every time I did play I’d hurt and it’d cause me more pain. Now they’re seeing a little bit of joy and seeing how much fun it is for me to be able to do this again,’ Woods added.
Even the few people who are not Woods fans would surely understand that his story is bigger than golf. It’s a sports story all on its own, something that will be made into a Hollywood blockbuster in years to come.
Of course, not everyone has bought into Tigermania, including the Australian who spent 331 weeks as world No 1, Greg Norman.
‘I hope they don’t put all their eggs in one basket again and just be all Tiger, and forget about all this other wonderful, fantastic talent,’ Norman said. ‘I’d hate to see them get lost again in that Tiger talk.’ Too late. There’s only one story for 2018 and it ain’t about the kids.
Norman also reckoned that those younger players aren’t scared to play against Woods. ‘They didn’t grow up from 2000 to 2015 when Tiger was the dominant player. They never went toe-to-toe with him,’ he said. ‘So they respected him and watched him, but now they’re out there doing their thing and they’re teeing up next to Tiger, and they’re not intimidated.’
But what of the record crowds and huge spikes in TV ratings which accompanied Woods’ rise up the rankings again to 13th by the end of the wraparound season?
‘TV ratings are up because of what Tiger Woods does to every other player,’ Norman said. ‘It’s not just about the one player, it’s about all the supporting cast who are equal if not better than him. He’s just pulling them along.’
Exactly. Pulling them along, the Pied Piper of sport.
At the final Major of 2018, The PGA Championship, Woods closed with a final-round 64 which left him in second position behind Koepka, and his best finish at a Major for a decade. The live TV ratings were up 69% on the final round of 2017. And when he won the Tour Championship, NBC revealed that their ratings for the final round of the event were up more than 200% from a year ago. The telecast from that round was the highest-rated of any PGA Tour event in 2018.
‘More people were watching when Tiger won yesterday than any [number] of people watching at a given time for the British Open or US Open this year,’ ESPN’s Darren Rovell tweeted.
Louis Oosthuizen, who won the 2010 Open Championship, has never been in any doubt as to the value of Woods.
‘He’s great for the game and having him fit and healthy is brilliant, not just for golf but for sport too. We as professional golfers mustn’t underestimate what he has done for the game, driving up TV ratings, helping add plenty of dollars to the prize money pools, and in a nutshell, helping us benefit financially from the sport.’
On the eve of winning the Tour Championship, Woods was asked where it would rank on the list of comebacks.
‘I think one of the greatest comebacks in all sport is the gentleman who won here, Mr Ben Hogan. I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won Major championships,’ he replied. ‘The pain he had to endure, the things he had to do just to play and how hard it was for him to walk, and he ended up walking 36 holes in one day and winning a US Open.’
Perhaps one needs to put into context what Woods meant when he said Hogan ‘got hit by a bus and came back to win Major championships’.
As Fergus Bisset wrote in Golf Monthly, looking back at Hogan’s 1950 US Open victory, ‘Sixteen months earlier he almost died in a car crash, suffering a broken pelvis, collarbone, ankle and crushed rib plus multiple cuts and bruises. Despite the severity of his injuries, Hogan made good progress in his recovery. But things were set back considerably when he suffered a blood clot that required emergency surgery and left him with his largest vein, the vena cava, permanently closed. Hogan was consigned to a lifetime of poor blood circulation to his legs. He would have severe difficulty walking, let alone playing, 18 holes.
‘Before each round at Merion, Hogan soaked for an hour in a hot bath filled with Epsom Salts. After that he wrapped each leg in bandages (which reduced the swelling, but made him extremely hot in the sweltering conditions) and then took Aspirin to dull the pain. But he tried to keep the discomfort to himself, as he didn’t want to show weakness.’
Tiger’s comeback? Back surgery in 2014, 2015 (twice) and 2017, knee surgery, excruciating neck pain, and problems with his Achilles. Not quite in the Hogan league of winning a Major 16 months after being hit head-on by a Greyhound bus, but remarkable nonetheless, especially considering that the number of potential winners of a tournament these days is higher than it was nearly 70 years ago.
But it was at the Champions’ Dinner in the Augusta National clubhouse in 2017 when Woods delivered the bombshell to 18-time Major champion Jack Nicklaus: ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ Sir Nick Faldo, with his three Masters Green Jackets, was in the room. Recalling the sad, hunchbacked figure who had trouble sitting down throughout the meal, Faldo also suspected that this had a discernible feel of the last supper.
Two months later, the world gasped as mugshots were released by the Florida Police Department depicting Woods in a red-eyed, bleary mess after a late-night arrest when he was found slumped over his steering wheel. ‘There looked no way back,’ Faldo said.
Except, there was.
And it could probably only be one person who could have come back.
TIMELINE OF TROUBLE
1994 – Removal of benign tumor from left knee. Woods was at Stanford University at the time. He won the 1994 US Amateur Championship.
2002 – Removal of benign cysts from left knee.
2008 – April: Cartilage damage in left knee cleaned out through arthroscopic surgery. This took place two days after the 2008 Masters, where Woods finished second.
2014 – June: Reconstructive surgery to repair anterior cruciate ligament in left knee (had been playing with a torn ACL since the 2007 Open). This surgery took place nine days after Woods won the 2008 US Open, where
he had also been playing with stress fractures in his leg.
2015- Microdiscectomy (back surgery) to treat a pinched nerve by cleaning
out a disc fragment.
Sept: Microdiscectomy to remove a disc fragment that was pinching
2017 – Oct: A ‘follow-up procedure’ to his surgery of a month earlier.
Woods had been suffering back spasms, sciatica and other pain since withdrawing from the Dubai Desert Classic in January. This surgery was called a ‘minimally invasive anterior lumbar interbody fusion at L5/S1’ and Woods declared himself done with golf in 2017.
Woods has had a series of issues with his left knee. In addition to the 2002 and 2008 surgeries related to this knee, involving a torn ACL, he also suffered a medial collateral ligament strain in the left knee during the 2011 Masters. In May 2008 Woods discovered he had a double stress fracture of the left tibia. He played – and won – the 2008 US Open despite those stress fractures and also having a torn ACL.
Woods has had issues with both tendons. He suffered a torn Achilles tendon in his right leg late in 2008. Strains of the left Achilles also contributed to withdrawals from the 2011 Players Championship and 2012 WGC-Cadillac Championship.
Woods withdrew from the 2010 Players Championship with a neck problem, later diagnosed as an inflammation of a neck joint. He also withdrew from the 2013 AT&T National due to a left elbow strain.
– This article first appeared in the November issue of Compleat Golfer